You hold an undergraduate degree in art. How has that background influenced your poems?
Well, for one thing, I’m obsessed with the image. I’m obsessed with lots of things, probably (Deadwood, long hikes, guys with beards), but I’m a sucker for imagery. I can’t stop myself. As it happens, I know my way around a potter’s wheel reasonably well, but overall I’m a terrifically untalented visual artist. A misanthropic painting professor once declared, during a critique, that an art project of mine belonged in the home décor section of Target. Ouch! After I considered the fact that although his estimation was probably true, an art professor who took pictures only of pine trees with elliptical holes that resembled vaginas and who kept bird bones in his pockets probably had it worse off than I did.
Anyway, while taking my first college-level creative writing class as an elective during my junior year as an undergraduate art student at VCU, I discovered poets like Charles Wright, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, and W.S. Merwin. I wanted to do what they did with imagery and sound and the lyric that wove in personal elements without sacrificing room for wild invention. I was hooked. I really wanted to propose to Charles Wright, actually. (Ahem, the offer still stands, my man.) So I took another poetry course at VCU—in which Gregory Donovan taught me pretty much everything I know about poetry—and one at George Mason University, and then began the MFA program in creative writing at VCU in the fall of 2004.
How often had you sent out If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting before it was selected for The National Poetry Series?
I’m fortunate to have met with that desirable combination of both timing and luck. During the fall of 2007, I sent my manuscript to six contests and finalized for three of them, one of which resulted in Thomas Lux selecting the book for the National Poetry Series.
Had it always been If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting or had it gone through different titles?
I agonized for a long time over the title. Although I enjoy inventing titles for single poems, I had difficultly drumming up one that spoke for the entire collection. The book went through two different titles. The first title, Carnival Afterlife, lingered for a few months, though it never felt quite right. As I sat in David Wojahn’s office at Virginia Commonwealth University one day, he leaned back in his swivel chair and, in that wily deadpan of his, drawled, “It’s too dactylic.”
Beckian Fritz Goldberg said, “Sure, who doesn’t like Carnival Afterlife? But that’s not your book.” Instead, she pointed to three poems in the manuscript that might make for stronger title poems, including “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting.” I liked the idea of having a long, quirky title, as well as a mysteriously incomplete “if clause.” Also, there’s a motif that loosely weaves in and out of the poems—images of red hair—so introducing that image in the title felt important.
How many different versions did your book go through as you were sending it out?
The book took approximately three main forms. I began by gathering all of my favorite poems—my “book poems”—into one behemoth, unruly mess, without any section breaks. Trying to sequence the poems while staring at my computer screen drove me crazy! I felt cross-eyed and had trouble picturing the poems as a unified body of work.
The second version of the book came together during my two-week residency at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York (that was May through June, 2007). I slept in a third-floor former servant’s quarters in the gothic Trask mansion on the hill and worked during the day in a sunny, cornflower blue cabin called Meadow at the edge of the woods. I believe escaping my usual habits and forging new rituals helped me look at my work in a much more focused way. (I love my devilish cat, Jellybean, but she has a knack for ambling across my poems, books, and sitting in my special chair.) Each day I’d get a fire going in my woodstove, then blast the Grateful Dead from my laptop for the first half an hour or so while I drank an entire thermos of black coffee. I’d watch for white-tailed deer or squirrels in the lilacs. I’d lounge in the upholstered rocking chair by the stove, reading through some of my favorite poetry collections—particularly ones organized into multiples sections, like Norman Dubie’s Groom Falconer, and Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake and In the Badlands of Desire. I’d also been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath and Larry Levis.
There was a bare single mattress across the room from my wooden desk. I’d spread all of my poems across its quilted surface into four horizontal rows (one row for each of the four sections). Organizing the poems in such a manner helped me see with clarity the entire book—what worked, what didn’t—and encouraged me to physically manipulate the poems, which was an incredibly satisfying experience.
On each poem, I circled its first few lines and last few lines. I did this in order to highlight the manner in which the piece began and ended, sometimes writing a single word next to the circled lines that briefly sketched the image or tone (like “devil” or “sassy”). I used the circling technique to help me fine-tune transitions between the poems. For instance, maybe I’d end with a devil image and then segue into another kind of malevolent figure, like a would-be serial killer, or something. Or, if I’d ended one poem on a note of trash-talking bravura, maybe I’d follow it with a poem that began with a starker, or more vulnerable tone, to provide a kind of counterpoint. All in all, I viewed the challenge of sequencing the book as if I were constructing one long poem.
A few weeks after my stay at Yaddo, I graduated from VCU during the summer and then left Richmond to begin the PhD program in creative writing at literature at the University of Houston. During my first year in Texas, I wrote about ten or so poems that ended up replacing others in the manuscript, which resulted in the third and final shape of the collection. I’d say, though, that I found the soul of my book while I worked in that rare state of solitude at the colony. And what a pampered solitude it was! I remember calling a friend one night to complain about a dinner option that seemed overzealous, even for the most committed of carnivores—some kind of poor little beast stuffed inside another poor little beast (maybe veal stuffed with lamb? Is that even a real dish?). She laughed and told me to shut the hell up.
Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
You know, reaching new readers always excites me, and appearing in literary journals and anthologies that I read and admire is an effective way to do that. I don’t think, though, that I wrung my hands about placing every poem in a journal as if the unpublished ones would spontaneously combust into some sort of shameful obscurity. Talk about pressure! Writers already nourish so many self-loathing ticks and inventively neurotic ways to punish themselves. Do we really need another reason? It’s important to cultivate a healthy and generous attitude toward your own work.
Though I don’t think the quote exists anymore on the website, before Ausable Press merged with Copper Canyon, I was floored by Chase Twitchell basically saying that a thesis is not a publishable book. Do you think those graduating MFAs, with their theses completed, should take heed of that advice? How much did your own thesis develop before it turned into your book?
An MFA thesis is not necessarily a publishable book, but I believe it can be. It really depends on the author: whether you’ve developed a distinct poetic voice, whether you’ve accumulated enough works that speak with confidence and authority, whether your poems are sequenced in such a way that they create rich arcs in emotion or narrative. Each poet’s work evolves at a slightly different pace. My MFA thesis certainly contains some embarrassing poetic attempts (like a lapse into gothic overdrive featuring a guy with glass eyeballs and a train wreck), though the bulk of the work and the sequencing are more or less the same as they appear in my book.
You’ve been a managing editor for Blackbird and a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. I wanted to know what your opinion is on the proliferation of online journals as venues for writers to publish their work. You’ve published in online journals yourself, and they seem to be becoming just as valid a venue for publishing work as print journals these days.
I’m a great believer in online literary and arts journals, and I think most writers are, or at least they should be. Poets & Writers published an essay by Sandra Beasley, “From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals” (May/June 2009), for example, and T.R. Hummer writes, in another issue of P & W, that online publications are “an unstoppable force, and one that will do enormous good for the visibility of the art.”
You’d have to be a real dinosaur not to recognize the difference between, say, Grandma Tiffy’s blog posts about sunsets and a reputable literary journal like Blackbird, the latter of which is a university-funded publication and whose senior genre editors are permanent staff members (creative writing professors, presidents of nonprofit arts organizations, etc.) with an editorial policy committed to upholding literary excellence. When I worked at Blackbird, I saw contributors win Pushcarts for poems (Linda Bierds’ “Meriwether and the Magpie” comes to mind, for instance); I saw an entire poetry collection of Norman Dubie’s, The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake, published serially online; I saw the online publication of “Ennui,” a previously unpublished sonnet by Sylvia Plath. We even scanned and published copies of her original typescripts with doodles, with permission from her estate.
I think there’s a lot you can do online that you can’t get away with in print: Listening to audio files of writers reading their own work, for instance, is an amazing gift. I remember when I first started reading modern and contemporary poetry how often I listened to recordings of Plath’s crisp gutturals, Eliot’s anglophilic warbles, and Ginsberg’s nasal exaltations. I want more! Also, publishing online can increase your presence by making your work available to a wider audience. If people “google” your name, some of your poems will come up. (This, of course, can also backfire should folks send their second or third tier work to online publications; so it’s always smart to be judicious and discerning about where to send your work, but especially since online poems will float around the internet forever. And yes, I do have one early poem I wish I could make go away. It involves a vomiting cat.)
Has being an editor helped shape your own writing in some way?
Oh, yes, very much so. I think being an editor has encouraged me to become a more omnivorous reader. Sometimes I surprise myself by admiring work that’s, say, incredibly elliptical or disjunctive, which differs from the kinds of poems I usually seek out to read or to write myself. Reading and appreciating a variety of work keeps me on my toes.
Editing also allows me to advocate for poets whose work I find exceptional. Supporting poets in the earlier stages of their careers can be especially rewarding, I’ve found. You know, soliciting National Book Award-winners and Pulitzer Prize-toting folk is always a real thrill and a pleasure; but what I consider even more exciting—and necessary—is calling attention to poets who may be less familiar to most readers. Some of my favorite younger poets, for instance, are Sarah Vap, Kara Candito, Joshua Poteat, Sandra Beasley, and Nicky Beer.
Do you have any advice for writers as far as how to get their work published and avoid being another rejection from the slush pile?
Well, I suppose my first piece of advice would be something along the lines of, “Don’t beat yourself up over returned SASEs covered with only your own handwriting.” Rejection happens a lot and it happens to everybody. Rejection from a journal doesn’t automatically mean your work isn’t any good.
I think what makes a poem stand out from the slush pile is a combination of qualities: its distinct poetic voice, inventive turns of phrase, balance of both sound and sense, music and mystery, and surprising images and metaphors. Poems that stand out in the slush pile all exhibit a heightened sensitivity toward language and a willingness to take bold risks with it—with syntax, with enjambments, with varying levels of diction, with unusual yet urgent metaphorical associations—but without imploding under the weight of mannerism, under easy irony, or under the period style: that jumpy American Surrealism Lite. I get bored with poems that are overly ironic, or deadened with theory, or lazy toward language, or play it safe by fracturing themselves into a tedious kind of highfalutin obscurity. Sometimes editing means reading a piece that looks like a poem and sounds like a poem but that has no heart. Sometimes editing means saying, “The emperor has no clothes.”
What do you remember about the day you saw your finished book for the first time?
Let’s see, I received a single advanced copy in the mail a few weeks before the motherload arrived. I checked my mail as I rushed toward my car, headed to teach two classes in a row. Recognizing the University of Georgia Press on the return address, I tore into the package, squealed, did a vague sort of jig à la the Lucky Charms elf, ran back upstairs to show my boyfriend the cover, and then carried the book with me to campus, clutching it periodically like the Holy Grail. I showed it off to my students, lest they think I developed some kind of maniacal eye-and-lip-twitch overnight. Oh, and I think I slept with the book perched regally on my bedside table.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover?
I’m fortunate to have incredibly generous, encouraging editors at UGA Press who gave me lots of creative control during the whole publishing process. They actively encouraged my participation on all fronts: cover art, font, blurbs, you name it. My first choice for cover art was Les feuilles mortes, a painting by the surrealist Remedios Varo. The painting features a red-haired woman in a floor-length green dress, seated in an eerie, monochromatic grey room, with a decaying, jagged carpet made of grass beneath her. She’s winding a ball of blue yarn from the hollow chest cavity of a stooped, faceless apparition, from which a white bird and a red bird fly. Also, some autumn leaves have blown into the room from an open window. We worked hard to gain permission to reprint the Varo painting, but it turned into a dead end, as the painting is privately owned and the last owner on record, according to the most recent catalogue raisonné, is now dead. For weeks I sent letters and emails to a long-dead French airline heiress! I don’t recommend doing that. It’s a bummer.
The good news, though, is that another favorite surrealist of mine, Leonora Carrington, has an incredible painting, Grandmother Moorehead’s Aromatic Kitchen, housed in the Charles B. Goddard Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Ardmore, Oklahoma. I love the whimsy and the darkness at work in the painting. The warm-toned piece evokes a scene in an alchemist’s red kitchen, with a tottering, bloated, white goose in the foreground. What more could a girl ask for, you know?
How has your life been different since your book came out? Tell me about your recent first review of the book in The LA Times.
Well, I’ve received kind notes from readers and solicitation letters from editors previously unfamiliar to me, which is absolutely wonderful. I’m continually surprised and grateful to hear when people enjoy the poems. Last summer, I had my reservations about joining Facebook, but a good number of these kinds of communications have been facilitated by the social network. Also, I get other surprises, like The LA Times review you’ve mentioned. Besides The New York Times, next to none of the big newspapers review poetry anymore, so it’s especially encouraging to notice when venues other than literary journals pay attention to first books of poetry.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’ve been giving more readings than usual, which has helped me grow less shy and wretchedly muckle-mouthed when I’m behind a podium. I’ve also participated in some interviews. But, really, Regan Huff, my excellent publicist at UGA Press, has been doing the lion’s share of publicity work—booking many of the readings; sending out review copies to literary journals, newspapers (including The LA Times), independent bloggers, and even to students (both graduate students and undergraduates who express an interest in writing about the collection). I’m lucky to work with a university press that advocates so strongly for my work.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? Are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
I don’t know if my crippling, yearlong writer’s block sprouted directly from my comparing new poems to those in the published collection—which is an unfair yet entirely natural thing to do—but giving my new work such a hard time certainly didn’t help me out much. I’d beat myself up about it: “I’m never going to write anything worth a damn ever again!” So dramatic. Then I’d go watch another episode of The Sopranos.
Of course, it also didn’t help that for my first two years in Houston my “office” was technically a large walk-in closet (with a couple of windows that looked out on a tar roof but without vents for A.C. and heat). I resented having to sit in that stagnant box. Go figure.
Since then I’ve moved to a new apartment and have begun work on a second manuscript, although it took me nearly a full year to arrive at a place where I’m writing work that seems like it’s doing different things than I’d done in my previous book—work that excites and invigorates me. I’ve written probably a fourth or so of the new material and a whole pile of false starts and abandoned drafts. I take some comfort knowing that many writers feel a similar sense of post-book ennui and often take a year—or more—to gear up for the next important phase in their writing lives.
Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Only send to places where you’d be thrilled to have your book taken, otherwise you’ll feel deflated and cheated. Wait until the manuscript feels ready and then send to six to ten of your top choices. Want the best for your work—not just for your career, but for those poems that arise from a place of urgency and necessity, and in which you faithfully believe.
Anna Journey is the author of the collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems are published in a number of journals, including American Poetry Review, FIELD, and Kenyon Review, and her essays appear in Blackbird, Notes on Contemporary Literature, and Parnassus. She’s currently a PhD candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston. In 2006, Journey discovered the unpublished status of Sylvia Plath’s early sonnet “Ennui” and the influence of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on it.